By Tony Attwood
Nationalism can always work people up. It is emotional – perhaps especially so for an island kingdom that claims to have invented football but only won an international football competition when allowed to play all its games at Wembley.
So does it matter how many players in England are “home grown”? Does it matter that we have foreign owners and foreign managers? And if it does why? Does it affect other countries – do they have quotas in order to reach the World Cup finals? Was it foreign influence that led to England’s awful display in the last under 21 competition when we left the finals after three matches and no wins?
If we think back we can remember that when England won the world cup in 1966 all the players in the team played in the Football League and the Football League was made up of primarily players from the UK and Ireland.
Everything changed with the case of Union Royale Belge des Sociétés de Football Association ASBL v Jean-Marc Bosman in 1995 – in the European Court of Justice. The Bosman ruling. It decided that footballers were entitled to the same rights within the EU as the rest of us, and so could move from place to place.
But between 1909 (when England started to play non-UK nations) and 1966 England didn’t win anything (although to be fair we withdrew from Fifa for quite a long time during that period, but we still could lose to Scotland quite often) and then after that, despite having our top division full of UK players – of whom around 90% were English – we still didn’t win anything. The sort of league that we see today with many non-English nationals playing in it, only took off post-Bosman. It was impossible before 1995.
So with a league full of English players, or a league full of non-English players – it makes no difference. England still doesn’t win unless it can play all its games at home.
But you wouldn’t know that listening to the FA, or looking at the newspapers that hang on their every word. You’d think that yes this is the issue. All those non-English players in the Premier League. What a disaster!
Except, it isn’t an utter disaster. Football is a major industry for the UK economy. In 2011 the accountancy firm Saffery Champness released the statement that the Premier League contributed over £1 billion to the Exchequer in taxation.
That of course is not an issue that people consider when, for example, there is talk about restricting the number of foreigners in the country (a major topic in the UK at the moment – along with the proposal for the UK to leave the EU). A lot of that money would go, as we would gradually drift back to a UK players only league.
But this vague notion that the nationality of a person should actually matter when watching football hasn’t always been there. Arsenal used non-English players from the start (mostly Scottish, but soon also Welsh and Irish – Ireland being part of the Kingdom at the time). Our first fully non-UK player was an Egyptian named Ahmed Fahmy who played a season in the reserves in the early 1920s.
But even in home internationals nationality wasn’t quite everything. Indeed as the recent article on the Arsenal History Society site reported when the Wales goalkeeper was injured in a 1909 international, the word went out to find a replacement keeper or any nationality who could join in. They found one and he was cheered to the rafters. Yes the crowd cheered for its country, but there were limits.
Now nationality is easy to get – you can claim to be English through a grandparent, or through being born in the country of foreign parents, or through living here for a while.
The CIES Football Observatory is the latest organisation to join in the hysteria that nationality matters, saying that the Premier League has the lowest proportion of homegrown players (using the Uefa definition) who are English – 77%. In Germany 96% of homegrown players were qualified to play for their country. It was 93% in France, 92% in Spain and 79% in Italy.
In terms of bringing homegrown players through the ranks England is behind France’s Ligue 1 (24.6%) La Liga (22.4%) and Germany’s Bundesliga (16.4%).
Raffaele Poli, head of the CIES Football Observatory, said “The low percentage of club-trained players in England confirms that if clubs have the money to buy talent, they tend to be reluctant to give a chance to youth academy players. So one question is: why are clubs signing the best prospects, if they know they will not play?”
It’s a decent question, but not really a very important one. The answer is that no one can actually tell how well or badly a player will turn out, but bringing through a player can be a great way to add talent to the squad when it works, and is cheaper than paying a fee – especially if the club that has the player you want won’t sell.
But for every Jack Wilshere who seems to have signed for Arsenal at birth, and every Walcott, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain brought from other UK clubs early on, there are so many more who look brilliant for a while but simply don’t make it through to the highest level.
Just look at the number of youth players that are let go each year – and look where they go. There are exceptions of course, but mostly it is a case of heading for the lower reaches of the Football League.
And yes, we all know Chelsea is overplaying the system (they were reported as having 26 players out on loan in September) but by and large the system works as a way of trying to find and bring through the best talent for the clubs.
But there is still much that is wrong with the CIES Football Observatory analysis. “The key issue is talented players must play as much as possible in adult leagues,” they said in a press release. “There is a highly positive correlation between matches played between 18 and 21 in professional leagues, irrespective of the level, and future career path.”
This is contrary to the philosophy of Mr Wenger who says players don’t need early competitive matches unless they are of the highest quality and coming through quickly.
And it is contrary to the philosophy of journalists and bloggers. Think of the fuss made when Bellerin was given his first match in the Champions League. It was suggested this was evidence of the insanity of the management in using a youngster and not having a seasoned international in the position.
It is, it seems, one of these ideas that is good in theory – bring through the youngsters in an English team – but not in practice when the club calls upon a highly talented youngster and gives him a role in an important game.
It also isn’t a very sacrosanct Uefa rule either. Uefa requires clubs competing in the Champions, or Europa, League to have eight homegrown players in their squads. Homegrown here means overseas players who trained for three years at a club during their youth. That policy was blown to bits when Manchester City, having been found guilty of flagrantly breaking FFP rules, were allowed to reduce that to five, after their overall squad was limited to 21. If ever there was a sign that the home grown regs were window dressing that was it.
But should we bother at all with home grown notions, with promoting English talent and the like? When all Englishmen played in England we were by and large pretty poor at internationals. When our league attracts lots of foreigners were are pretty poor at internationals. That doesn’t look like cause and effect to me.
But English people are good at blaming foreigners – it is something that seems to be a fundamental part of the English makeup. Greg Dyke is a regular hand at this game, as when he said “If your top league is largely foreign owned with foreign managers, why should those in control care about developing the England team?”
What he could have said was, “When our top league was wholly English owned with English managers, we were crap at international football, so it is time to try another approach.” I’m not advocating that, but that at least makes more sense.
Mind you this is the same Greg Dyke who promised investment in grass-roots facilities after Sport England got so pissed off with the FA that it withdrew all its funding for grass roots football. At least the newspapers are starting to talk about the past quarter century of utter neglect for grassroots football. But Dyke wants £230m after alienating the one source of money he had, and still trying to find ways to pay for Wembley.
We all know that the key indicator of whether a nation is any good at football or not is the number of top quality coaches per thousand players. And if you are a regular Untold reader you will know where I am going next. Yes I have said this about 20 times on these pages – but it was one of my little triumphs of analysis so permit me to slip it in again.
- With Balogun will Arsenal be heading toward goalscoring records
- Everton v Arsenal this saturday lunchtime: just what are Everton playing at?
- What the media doesn’t tell you, part 6. There’s a financial problem…
- The Big 7 clubs, how much they spent and what good is it doing?
- What the media won’t tell you about football 5: Fifa lends money to Switzerland